FRANKFORT, Ky. — Alison Lundergan Grimes is the latest Democratic Senate candidate to call for building the Keystone XL oil pipeline, but the Kentucky secretary of state's move doesn't seem to have cost her support among environmental groups who want to unseat Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell.
It's evidence that campaign wrangling over Keystone XL is about more than the project itself. It's also about the battle for control of the Senate in the November midterm elections, with Republicans within striking distance of assuming the majority. Also on display are long-standing partisan divides between the energy industry, which tends to support Republicans, and environmentalists, who generally support Democrats.
Many oil, gas and coal interests want McConnell to become the agenda-setting majority leader. Green advocacy groups want to keep things as they are, with Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada leading a Democratic majority that's generally more in line with environmentalists' concerns — even if the Democratic caucus includes industry-friendly senators from energy-producing states, from Sen. Mary Landrieu's Louisiana to Sen. Mark Begich's Alaska.
That means Grimes can get away with endorsing the Keystone XL pipeline that many environmental activists loathe. On the same day Grimes revealed her support for the pipeline to The Associated Press this week, a national group dedicated to blocking it announced it would spend $500,000 to support her effort to unseat McConnell.
McConnell's campaign seized on the politics of strange bedfellows.
"One of two things is happening," spokeswoman Allison Moore said in a written statement. "Either Alison Lundergan Grimes has given these groups assurances that she's not giving to Kentuckians, or the partisanship of these groups exceeds their stated environmental goals."
The pipeline, said CREDO Super PAC President Becky Bond, isn't the organization's top priority in the 2014 midterm elections, it's keeping the Senate in Democratic control.
Republicans need to gain a net of six seats to control the Senate for the final two years of President Barack Obama's term. The GOP has a friendly landscape to attempt a takeover since Democrats must defend more than a half-dozen seats in states where Obama lost and remains unpopular. But losing a Republican-held seat like Kentucky would be a major setback, to say nothing of the potential symbolism of ousting McConnell.
Grimes' announcement puts her alongside several incumbent Democrats and the party's Senate candidates who have used energy policy to distance themselves from the White House.
The Keystone XL project has become a major flashpoint alongside the larger debate over carbon emissions, drilling policies and tax breaks for energy companies. The proposed pipeline would be part of a system carrying tar sands oil from Canada to the Texas Gulf Coast. The Obama administration said last week it was putting off its decision on whether to approve the pipeline, likely until after the November elections, by extending its review of the controversial project indefinitely. The State Department said federal agencies will have more time to weigh in on the politically fraught decision, citing a Nebraska court ruling that overturned a state law allowing the pipeline's path through the state.
Approving the pipeline before the election would rankle Obama's allies and donors in the environmental community, but rejecting it could be politically damaging to vulnerable Democrats running this year in conservative-leaning states.
Landrieu, the Senate Energy Committee chairwoman who faces a tough re-election fight, led 10 of her Democratic colleagues earlier this month in signing a letter urging Obama to approve the project. Among her co-signers were Begich, Kay Hagan of North Carolina, Mark Pryor of Arkansas and Mark Warner of Virginia, who all face competitive campaigns this fall.
Two other Democratic Senate candidates — Michelle Nunn in Georgia and Natalie Tennant in West Virginia — already had endorsed Keystone XL. Tennant is trying to keep a Democratic seat opened by Sen. Jay Rockefeller's retirement; Nunn is running for retiring Republican Sen. Saxby Chambliss' seat.
The incumbents' letter and statements from Nunn, Tennant and Grimes all cited the same general themes of promoting job growth and national security. The Democrats argue that environmental concerns have been satisfied.
It's still not that simple for groups like CREDO. Bond explains on the group's website that her "Save the Senate" campaign aims to help just a handful of Democrats. Of that group, Hagan is the only incumbent who has announced Keystone XL support. "CREDO will skip races in states like Arkansas and Louisiana where the Democratic incumbents frequently vote against progressives," Bond wrote, specifically referring to "terrible Democrats like Louisiana's Mary Landrieu."
The energy industry, meanwhile, is also hedging its bets.
In West Virginia, for example, Tennant's full-throated support hasn't gotten her much against heavily favored Republican Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, who won an endorsement from the state's leading coal industry organization; and Capito has raised more than $362,000 from oil, gas and mining interests — 22 times Tennant's haul, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a non-partisan group that tracks campaign donations and spending.
Yet Landrieu, enjoying her post leading the Senate panel that writes energy policy, has drawn more than $529,000 from oil and gas interests in the past five years. That makes the industry her second-leading source of direct support behind lawyers, who chipped in $1 million, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
Barrow reported from Atlanta. Associated Press writer Matthew Daly in Washington contributed to this report.